Saturday, March 17, 2012


Heinrich Heine, 1822

Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten,
Daß ich so traurig bin;
Ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten,
Das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.

Die Luft ist kühl und es dunkelt,
Und ruhig fließt der Rhein;
Der Gipfel des Berges funkelt,
Im Abendsonnenschein. 

Die schönste Jungfrau sitzet
Dort oben wunderbar;
Ihr goldenes Geschmeide blitzet,
Sie kämmt ihr goldenes Haar,

Sie kämmt es mit goldenem Kamme,
Und singt ein Lied dabei;
Das hat eine wundersame,
Gewaltige Melodei. 

Den Schiffer im kleinen Schiffe,
Ergreift es mit wildem Weh;
Er schaut nicht die Felsenriffe,
Er schaut nur hinauf in die Höh'.

Ich glaube, die Wellen verschlingen
Am Ende Schiffer und Kahn;
Und das hat mit ihrem Singen,
Die Lore-ley getan. 

For those of us who love rivers, there is always that one special river, one which we have never visited, but ever since we learnt to dream, dreamed about riding a little boat on it. It is usually unruly, and feared by men, but we have always ridden on the crests, and made it tranquil. Der Rhein, or the Rhine happened to me when I was very young; at a time when another river, the Teesta, flowed a kilometer away from my house; and on long weekends, we would go to the hills, which were forty minutes from my old house, and standing on the Coronation Bridge, watch the river. It was then, years ago, that I learnt which rivers were sad, and which weren't. Nearly two decades later I would be able to compare notes with the Thames and the Seine. In keeping with what I had first learnt from the Teesta and the Mahananda, did I realise that the Arno and the Tiber are sad rivers. I saw the Tiber meander through Rome on a dusty, hot afternoon, and realised how no one cared about it. I nearly cried when I saw the Arno for the first time at Florence, and couldn't believe that this narrow, shallow, rather untidy river, was the very same one, conspicuous by its invisible presence in Dante's Divine Comedy. And though over the years, my heart has wept with sorrow or leapt with joy at the thought of many a river, there is one river which occupies a special part, and goes beyond mere emotions of joy and sadness - the Rhine.

I began dreaming about the Rhine around the same time I discovered the Seine and the Volga. For a few days, it was a battle between the rivers. The glorious Seine flowing through Paris, along whose banks Maupassant's hapless Mathide Loisel had gone minutes after losing the borrowed necklace, and was stung by the cold; or was it the Volga, a river which was always mistakenly associated in my mind with the Cossacks of the Don river valley; or the Rhein, subject of folklore, romance, and stuff that dreams are made of - except at a time when I wasn't very aware of these elements.

It so happened, that the Rhine remained. 

I first learnt about the Lorelei way back in the A2 level of German. The course had just begun, and the various batches were combined leading to a moderate group with a number of intriguing members of the male sex. That, of course wasn't important... eventually. But during those early days of the classes, we were all very conscious, and discovering the legend of the Lorelei while reading about the states of Germany, made the situation very literal. Our young charming teacher told us about the legend, and our book bore a tiny picture of a maiden on a rock with flowing golden hair. The Lorelei (or Loreley) is a rock on the eastern bank of the Rhine as it flows through Rheinland-Pfalz. The river is at its narrowest point when flowing past the rock; and the strong current, and the sharp rocks below the waterline (from which it has got its name) has caused many boat accidents over the centuries. Legend has it, that a siren sits atop the rocks, and while combing her luscious locks, and singing a song, she distracts the shipmen below causing them to crash on the rocks. The Lorelei has given way to the entire gamut of the Rheinromantik literature.

In the early nineteenth century, the German writer Clemens Brentano documented the oral legend, and gave many personal touches to it. He writes about the beautiful maiden, Lorelei, who was betrayed by her lover, and like most beautiful and brave women through the ages, was accused of enchanting men with her beauty and causing their death. Although she was saved from the gallows for her heinous crime, she was consigned to the nunnery, where the Habit and the veil would make sure to nip the evil (of beauty) in the bud. Along the way, she was accompanied by three knights, and as she passed the rock, she begged to view the Rhine for the last time. She climbed over it, but fell to her death among the rocks. The rocks retain the echo of her name. My favourite Lorelei lore, however, is written by Heinrich Heine, in his poignant poem which I have reproduced above. I found the book at the MMB library, complete with beautiful illustrations, and I read it late one night. It is haunting, even as one reads it. One can only imagine the effect when it is sung.

My German teacher, aware of my love for rivers and lores, gave me a book to read which she had herself won as a prize when she went to study in (then, West) Germany in the early 1960s. The book traces the journey of the river through the ages, and through the lands, and has breath-taking black-and-white pictures. It is in German, and I suspect is out of print now. Ever since I read the poem, I like to spend my afternoons in bed with this book, looking at the pictures, brooding over the time that goes by, and the romance a river in a far-off continent can instill in one. The book has taught me about the story of survival for a thousand years, through the Roman settlement, the age of emperors, the travails of modernity, the horrors of the Holocaust, and finally through the indifferent age of technology. But my favourite story is the story of the pretty woman sitting on a steep cliff, combing her hair, and singing songs, as many feet below, doomed shipmen cruise violently to their death among the rocks. 

I have attempted a weak translation of Heine's lovely poem:

I cannot determine the meaning,
Of the sorrow that fills my breast;
A fable from very old times,
Offers my mind no rest.

The air is cold and it gets dark,
And peacefully flows the Rhine;
The summit of the peak sparkles
In the evening sunshine.

The most beautiful of maiden sits,
Up there , one so wondrous;
Her golden jewellery glistens,
She combs her golden hair.

She combs with a golden comb
And sings a song along;
One that has an appealing,
Powerful melody.

The sailor of the little vessel
Moved with a wild pain;
Sees not the rocky reef,
But looks only at the heights above.

I believe, the waves devoured
The boatman and his barge at the end;
And that, with her notes
Was done by the Lore-ley.


  1. Much like the Siren's lure, wouldn't you say?
    Thanks for introducing me to German poetry.

  2. Just like siren's lure. And rather helpless too...
    As for the introduction, it's my pleasure, Deepanjana di. :) I hope you have a rich, fulfilling journey. I, too, am just beginning mine.